If you ever go to London and fancy visiting Wellington’s Arch, then please take a look across the road at the magnificent house opposite – that is Apsley House, the home of the 1st Duke of Wellington.
The guidebook admits that Apsley House ‘is one of the most conspicuous residences in London’ and for those who are interested in the Napoleonic Wars it certainly would be, but it didn’t immediately strike me as the home of a great military hero – if I hadn’t planned to go there I would have had no idea of the treasures inside. And it is most definately a treasure trove.
Apsley was bought by Wellington from his older brother Henry Bathurst in 1817, and filled with a massive collection of paintings, works of art and gifts that had been presented to him after the Battle of Waterloo. Walking through the house you begin to think that Wellington wanted his house to become a museum rather than a home, and his collections were displayed as such.
Following the tour guide, the first place to visit is the Inner Hall; full of busts and sculptures that reveal just how well connected Wellington was and a memorial to the people that he met along the way. Your eyes are drawn towards the staircase and as you wander around you cannot miss the colossal statue of Napoleon that was presented to Wellington by the Prince Regent in 1816. It seems a little weird that Wellington would have a statue of Napoleon in his home, but he admired the French ruler and as you walk through the drawing rooms you can spot many paintings and works of art dedicated to him.
The Picadilly Drawing room is complete with yellow silk wallpaper – Wellington loved yellow as he believed it complemented the gold frames of his paintings and the gold decor that he styled his home in. Mrs Arbuthnot (the duke’s close friend) disagreed, reporting that ‘yellow damask, which is just the very worst colour he can have for pictures…however, he will have it’! It’s still extremely impressive though! The mirrors at each end of the room magnify the setttings and the grandeur of the room. I wish I could live in a house like that!
But it’s the Waterloo Gallery where everything comes together. This is the largest room in the house – a massive 90ft long that was once used to accomodate the annual Waterloo Banquet hosted by Wellington; the guidebook states that ‘in 1821, for example, the guest list included King George IV, most of the royal dukes and foreign ambassadors, and Wellington’s own generals who had fought with him at Waterloo’. Covering the walls are Wellington’s collection of paintings; the Spanish Royal collection is housed there as well as portraits of aristocrats and of course the famous battle itself.
The remaining rooms in the house continue to display Wellington’s paintings, with the next impressive room you come across being the State Dining Room. The Portuguese centrepiece is exquisite; presented to Wellington by the Portuguese Council of Regency, it represents the victories over Napoleon and ‘comprises more than 1,000 pieces’; individual figures and plaques to commemorate the Peninsular War.
Finally you arrive at the Museum Room which is home to the gifts presented to the Duke following Waterloo. There is so much glittering gold and silver in this room that you are almost blinded as you enter; the Waterloo Shield is surely the most impressive piece, but the mounted swords cannot be missed. In the centre of the room is the Egyptian Service – ‘commissioned for Josephine Bonaparte in 1809 to mark her divorce from Napoleon…In 1818 King Louis XVIII presented the service to Wellington’. Magnificent!
Apsley House is a rare gem. I’ve never seen a house so richly decorated and so impressive. Each room has it’s own character, and when you leave you feel that you have managed to get a sense of the real Wellington; not the military hero (although the swords and paintings are a constant reminder), not the ‘Iron Duke’, but the man who adored art and wanted to display his love of the finer things in life to the world. He rarely lived in the house himself, but was determined to display his treasures, and I’m sure he would be most impressed that the house has been so carefully preserved. A definate must-visit!